Nate Parker’s lightning-rod account of slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner arrives in the opposite of a vacuum: The long path to release has been so clouded by expectation, controversy, and extracurricular noise that it’s almost strange to be reminded that there is, in fact, an actual movie at the center of it all.
The Birth of a Nation’s rapturous early acclaim — it won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, and netted one of the most lucrative distribution deals in the festival’s history — and the recent controversy over unearthed 1999 rape charges against Parker (he was later acquitted) are unavoidably part of the narrative now. So is the mirror its story holds up to the ongoing specter of American injustice, nearly 200 years after Turner’s death and a century since the debut of the malignantly racist D.W. Griffith epic whose title Parker has defiantly reclaimed.
This Birth is also a big, unabashedly ambitious picture, heavy with the weight of history. But its best moments turn out to be the smaller human ones — not the biopic bullet points of Turner the folk hero and symbolic martyr but the more intimate portrait of a son, husband, and father who struggled to reconcile his unshakable faith with the harsh realities of being born a black man in the antebellum South.
Raised on a Virginia plantation and taught to read the Bible by an altruistic mistress (Penelope Ann Miller), Turner was visited by religious visions from an early age, and it was the word of God that eventually led him to rebellion. (“For every verse they use to support our bondage,” he tells a makeshift congregation of fellow slaves, “there’s another one demanding our freedom.”) His righteousness was hardly abstract, though; he was galvanized by crucial events in his own life, including an ugly betrayal by his master and onetime friend (Armie Hammer, showing just how provisional white benevolence could be) and a horrific assault on his wife (the lovely if underdrawn Aja Naomi King).
As a director Parker is a little too fond of heavy Jesus metaphors, but as an actor he’s immensely compelling, skillfully tracing Turner’s transformation from softhearted minister to holy warrior. Even as Birth stumbles in its more overwrought moments, it’s almost impossible not to be moved by what he’s made: a flawed but powerfully affecting film by a flawed but undeniably gifted filmmaker. B+